- CHAPTER XXXII LITTLE GUS ATTAINS HIS MANHOOD
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LITTLE GUS ATTAINS HIS MANHOOD
HEWETT ADDISON, in spite of his name and fame, could not open the door twice of golden opportunity.
When Phosie asked him to help her to obtain an engagement, soon after her husband's illness, he was more than willing to use his influence, but the success of her brief career on the music-hall stage was already forgotten.
The Paramount Theatre, where she had appeared as the Lost Fairy, was under new management. Hewett tried in vain to get her a trial turn at one of the smaller West End halls. He applied to his friend Tailing, who had composed the music for the "Lost Fairy," for his success as a song-writer was no longer hanging in the balance.
Tailing was a man of importance in the peculiar Bohemian world of musical comedy. He had great experience, also, in the halls. Tailing remembered Phosie very well. He had been more than half in love with her in the old days—but he did not mention this fact to Addison—and he not only gave her a couple of songs of his own, but taught her how to sing them. Addison arranged a dance, and Miss Sapio insisted on providing a costume.
When this point was reached it was old Quizzical Quilter, the last man in the world whom Tailing and Hewett would have invited to their councils, who actually obtained Phosie's engagement.| | 297
The manager of the Gem, a small, prosperous music-hall in a busy suburb, happened to be the son of one of Quizzy's oldest friends. Quizzy made it his business to spend an evening at the Gem and raved about little Miss Moore. The manager offered to see her turn, and Mr Quilter returned to the West End delighted with his success.
Addison was inclined to scorn the Gem, but Tailing overruled his objections, and Phosie agreed with the composer.
"It would be foolish to refuse an engagement of any kind," she urged.
"Starting at the Gem doesn't mean that one is bound to stop there," said Tailing.
"Hear! hear!" cried Miss Sapio.
"Of course I know that the great point is to get an appearance," said Addison.
"There you are!" exclaimed Quizzy; adding, some-what enigmatically, "We all like a dinner of roast beef and apple dumplings, but there's no harm in a little bit o' fried fish to start."
Phosie's trial turn was a success, not an overwhelming success, but good enough for the manager to give her a month's engagement. He put her on in the early part of the programme, before his patrons were too noisy to listen to her songs.
She was strangely out of place at the Gem. It was positively painful to Addison to see her there, for he did not understand that Phosie created her own atmosphere. Coarse tongues were silent at her approach. She had the knack of making people laugh at trifles, and was able to hold her own, for all her gentleness and gaiety, while her quick, unselfish courtesy made her popular with men and women alike.
Phosie, guarding her secret from her husband, confided everything to Little Gus. It gave him pleasure to be consulted, and being told the amount of her salary, | | 298 small as it was, he recovered his usual cheerfulness and left off brooding over possible starvation.
He had implored Phosie, when she returned to Belton Terrace, to accept the whole of his weekly wages, and when she refused he lived in a state of dread, expecting Walter to be arrested for debt and dragged out of his bed by the police at any hour of the day or night.
Gus was not an optimistic companion during the first weeks of trial, and even Jane remonstrated with him on his gloomy outlook.
"Your eyes always look as if you were goin' to cry," she said. "I think you must be nothin' but a grownup baby."
Remarks such as this depressed Gus, but little Jane, who really loved him, compensated for her severities by impetuous hugging.
Gus often longed in his aimless way for an opportunity to show his devotion to his only friends.
He had always known that Walter Race held him in careless contempt. Even Phosie never suspected how his weak, over-sensitive nature had been wounded by her husband's treatment. He had never meant to be cruel to Gus, any more than he would have been cruel to a harmless animal, but all Gus's poor attempts at an equality of friendship had been simply ignored, for Walter was unconscious of their existence. His very kindness and indifferent hospitality, hardly noticing whether it was accepted, was a vague reproach, a subtle insult, to the manhood of Gus.
He was hurt, humiliated, and the desire to assert himself—to be worthy of the respect of the man whom Phosie had married—had long been the strongest, hidden feeling of his life.
The opportunity came,—the supreme chance,—but not as Little Gus had pictured it in his imagination. In this, as in everything else, he was unfortunate.| | 299
The bright hour which proves its greatness is often the darkest hour for the heroic soul.
The Gem music-hall was an old, badly-constructed, inconvenient building. The front of the house, the stage and principal dressing-rooms were arranged, according to modern regulations, in as safe and comfortable a manner as possible. There were plenty of exits, and the staircase was of stone. At the back of the stage was a swing-door leading to a narrow flight of stairs which communicated with two small rooms, all that remained of an old house formerly occupying the site of the modern music-hall.
Phosie had been given one of these little rooms, mere cupboards in size, the other being used by three sisters, trapeze artistes.
She was very glad to be alone, and until the night of Gus's adventure had had no objection to her comparative isolation, for the girls in the room below did not arrive till late, being engaged at another hall in the early part of the evening. Phosie could hear, when she opened her door, the orchestra and audience in the distance.
Little Gus, who had haunted the gallery of the Paramount during the career of the "Lost Fairy," as persistently haunted the Gem, except on the days when he stopped at home to keep Walter company, but that was not often, for Walter really preferred to be alone.
Gus was admitted behind the scenes, for there were no strict rules at the Gem. The place seemed to possess a peculiar fascination for him. Sometimes he stood in the wings staring at the performers, but more often he wandered aimlessly about the back of the stage, or sat on a roll of carpet, occasionally chatting with the stage hands or listening to the conversation of the artistes.
He was interested in everything to do with a theatre, and even a commonplace hall like the Gem possessed | | 300 a glamour for his inexperience. The work of the electrician filled him with admiration; he was always excited at a change of scenery, and he would stand in the most uncomfortable position, till his back ached, for the pleasure of getting a glimpse of the audience through holes in the canvas.
One night, in the confusion of setting the stage more elaborately than usual for the benefit of a new turn, Gus found himself hemmed into a corner at the back, close to the swing-door leading to the extra dressing-rooms, where it was so dark that the carpenters had not seen him sitting on his usual roll of carpet.
Gus smiled at the situation. He was apparently imprisoned, and, without attempting to slip through the pieces of scenery, he resigned himself to his fate, looking forward to the surprise of the men when he should be discovered.
It was a gloomy seat and there was nothing to amuse him. He soon began to yawn. After a little while his head bobbed forward, jerked back, then gradually sank down on his chest, and he was fast asleep.
Gus always slept heavily, and as it happened that the pieces of scenery surrounding him were not required, he was undisturbed for over an hour. Phosie's turn was over. She thought he had gone home. No one had any idea of his hiding-place.
Suddenly, into the depths of his dreamless sleep, a strange noise drummed into his ears, and at the same time he became dimly conscious of a tickling, unpleasant sensation in his throat.
He stirred, coughed, and shook himself back to reason His eyelids seemed, for the minute, to cling together. He coughed again. There was the sound of hurrying feet, a sharp voice raised above the din, and the distant rattle of a march from the orchestra.
For a second Little Gus stared into strange, smoky mist—puzzled, troubled, only half awake. Then the | | 301 truth crept into his slow brain, but he could not realise what it meant.
The back of the stage was on fire—that was it—he said the words to himself, listening to the hurrying feet and the sharp voice of command.
The back of the stage was on fire! He thought he had only been asleep for a few minutes. Phosie was still in her room—and the back of the stage was on fire. He said it to himself over and over again.
What could he do? Why had they not warned him? Did they know he was there? He must rush out and tell them.
Fire! Phosie was still in her room. He must save her.
This was a new thought. It drove all others out of his brain.
He must save Phosie.
It was an easy matter to slip between the wings of scenery to the swing-door.
The curling grey mist of smoke made his throat and eyes smart, but the possibility of actual danger did not occur to him. It was unpleasant, even painful, but nothing more. In a second he hoped to reach Phosie's room and they could run downstairs together.
The men who were fighting the fire towards the front of the stage had not seen or heard him. Starting in the flies, smoke and flames were swiftly spreading over the upper part of the building. The audience was safe. The performers were crowded round the stage door. The street was thronged with people. The Gem was turned to a ruby, glowing in the night.
Little Gus staggered up the wooden stairs to Phosie's room. He shouted her name. His throat, his eyes, his nose were tingling and sore. He was dazed, bewildered, and slipped on the top step, striking his head against the closed door.
"Phosie! " he gasped again, pulling himself up.| | 302
He groped for the handle and threw open the door. It shut behind him. The room was empty.
The electric light was hanging over the dressing-table. The smoke which twined its way through the frame of the door had not yet obscured its brilliance. Phosie's dancing dress hung against the wall, wrapped in a white cloth; several pairs of little satin shoes stood in a line on the floor.
All the trifles on the dressing-table were neatly arranged—the hare's foot, the big box of powder, the sticks of grease paint, the eau-de-Cologne, the hair brushes—and several snapshots of Jane were stuck in the side of the looking-glass.
Little Gus, staring and coughing, saw only one object of interest in the room, and that was a glass of water containing a bunch of violets.
Water! He sprang forward, threw out the flowers, and poured it down his throat.
Then he turned to make his escape. It was too late. He opened the door on blinding smoke. The hot air rushed into his face. The wooden staircase was crackling and spluttering like a handful of dry twigs tossed on a smouldering fire.
A shriek of terror broke from his lips. For a few seconds he was like a madman. He tore his hair and waved his arms over his head, his face convulsed with horrible grimaces.
But this passed. The love of his life—the daily habit of his thoughts—did not fail him in the moment of his great need.
He remembered Phosie. She was safe.
With this knowledge the futility of what he had done rushed over his struggling soul.
His whole life was futile. The years passed before him in a second of time.
He was to die—alone! She would never know, her husband would never know, what he had tried to do. They would forget him.| | 303
"God help me!" groaned Little Gus.
In the prayer was the answer.
A sense of triumph swept over him. What were success or failure in the light of his heroic deed? It is not the accomplishment, but the effort which counts. The ordeal passed is the test of character. He had never thought of this before, but he felt that it was true.
So, in that vital minute which passed between his madness of fear and his leap for life, Little Gus attained his manhood and conquered despair.
The table stood in front of the window. He dragged its heavy weight aside as easily as if it had been a toy, threw up the sash and leaned out, shouting for help.
There was no answer. He heard a confused noise in the distance, but the back of the music-hall, where he stood, was shut in by high, windowless walls.
Below him was the dark outline of a flat roof. It was impossible to measure the distance. He climbed on to the sill, for the heat and smoke of the room were blinding, looked over his shoulder for one shuddering breath, gathered himself together, shut his eyes, and jumped down.
It was over. He felt a shock of pain, writhed for a second, throwing out one arm, and lost consciousness.
At the same time Phosie, pacing up and down her room, waited anxiously for his return. Walter was asleep and knew nothing of Little Gus's absence.
The hours dragged heavily past, and she saw the dawn break.
The manager of the music-hall sent her news in the early morning. They had found her old friend lying on the roof—bruised, shattered, with broken limbs, the wreck of a man—but still alive.
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